Fair pay for artists in world-leading Irish policy

With their Paying the Artist policy, Ireland has a new groundbreaking approach that Australia could learn from, according to Esther Anatolitis.

At the 2019 Australia Council Awards, Chair of the Australia Council Sam Walsh AO said: ‘Our artists should be celebrated – and they should be remunerated accordingly.’

In Ireland, they’ve gone a step further. Released last week, Paying the Artist is a policy to improve the living and working conditions of artists, establishing principles to be applied across all artforms, as well as preparing the groundwork for future, more specific policies in these areas.

‘We seek to create an environment in which artists can make work of excellence and ambition,’ said the Arts Council of Ireland / An Chomhairle Ealaíon announcement, ‘and be remunerated appropriately.’

Highlights from the policy’s key principles:

  • a helpful distinction is made between ‘best practice’ and ‘minimum standards’, and the Arts Council makes explicit its priority on the former;
  • while the viability of artists’ careers is what sustains the entire ecology, artists’ personal subsidy of their own practice is in fact a personal subsidy of the entire industry that is ‘unfair and unsustainable’;
  • and as its very first stated principle, the policy says with confidence that ‘Arts Council Ireland values artists: we value the work that artists create, and the way in which they represent and contribute to the cultural life of the nation. This value must be better reflected in how we pay artists.’

To make the scope of its policy clear, the Arts Council of Ireland applies it to what they fund as well as how they advocate across government and to the philanthropic and private sector. A detailed implementation plan specifies a range of actions that give great confidence in the success of the policy.

Importantly, the policy also details best practice principles on how artists should be engaged, including ensuring that organisations have board-approved artist payment policies on their websites, aiming for continuous improvement in pay rates, and complying with industry codes of practice.

This is a welcome development. It’s an excellent, ground-breaking approach for a government agency to take, and it’s going to have major impact on how artists in Ireland live and work.

In Australia, NAVA has long advocated for fair pay at industry standards to be a condition of public funding, for organisations to have written policies on artist payment, and for artists’ pay to be a priority and not an afterthought of project budgets.

While Australia’s artists are largely ununionised, industry collaborations on best practice and pay standards are relied upon by both artists and organisations to advocate and negotiate well.

In Canada, CARFAC’s Scale Agreement negotiations with the National Gallery of Canada on pay standards are then applied nationally as best practice. Last week a new pay standards website was also released with RAAV, expressing the importance of national pay standards collaborations between the Canadian Artists’ Representation / Front des artistes canadiens and Regroupement des artistes en arts visuels du Québec. This includes fees and royalties schedules from now until 2023.

In the US, Working Artists and the Greater Economy has advocated for ten years for ‘sustainable economic relationships between artists and the institutions that contract our labor, and to introduce mechanisms for self-regulation into the art field that collectively bring about a more equitable distribution of its economy.’ W.A.G.E. runs a national certification that publicly recognises institutions who are performing well.

So what’s next for Australia?

With the Australia Council’s Four Year Funding for Organisations outcomes expected to be announced at the end of March, arts organisations are already coming together to discuss how best to support artists and one another. Given fewer organisations will be funded, the impact on the entire arts ecology will be felt deeply and for years to come, as we’ve seen from the outcome of the previous round.

So while we absolutely need significantly more money in the Australia Council’s grants programs to keep up with and indeed anticipate growth in the sector, we also need strong, clear national leadership on what’s ambitious and fair in the arts, today and tomorrow.

Several prominent philanthropists are starting to respond to this challenge, seeking expert advice on what role they might best play in both artist investment and sector development.

Sector service organisations across Australia are forming new collaborations and alliances, in response to the major performing arts framework’s renewed orientation towards the small-to-medium sector that drives the ecology, the visual arts’ ongoing best practice collaborations, and also the bushfire crisis and the need to form standing national cooperations on climate emergency response. All of this work strengthens what organisations can do for artists, while making artists’ working conditions an ongoing focus.

As we were reminded in 2018’s State of the Union exhibition at the Potter Museum, curated by Jacqueline Doughty, the Australia Council used to deliver programs in partnerships with unions and also in workplaces. Workers and therefore working conditions used to be a focus in the 1980s, at a time when the federal government was developing and restructuring the Australian economy through a series of national accords on workplace standards which were negotiated with unions as the experts on worker representation.

The average incomes of Australia’s artists have not changed since the 1980s, as the Throsby Reports have consistently shown. And yet, in the meantime, the industry itself has grown considerably.

Arts Council of Ireland’s policy sets a valuable global precedent on the role that government can play in setting clear expectations on what’s fair and equitable.

It’s time for local, state and federal government funding bodies all over Australia to frame their programs with a clear set of requirements that jettison unrealistic expectations of KPI growth at artists‘ expense. 

Let’s ask organisations as part of the application process what changes they’re making to their operations to ensure fair payment – and let’s make it ok for everyone to stop feeling the pressure to do more with less.

Let’s ensure all funded organisations have written policies on artist payment. Let’s make this the outcome of important conversations between boards and artists, so that a rich understanding of artists’ living and working conditions informs organisational strategy and policy at the highest level.

And let’s see government funding bodies workshop the Arts Council Ireland approach and see how they can match it – or exceed it.

Such approaches will have great impact on the capacity and potential of Australia’s artists.

That point of greatest impact is also, of course, the most vulnerable point.

When artists are paid fairly, organisations are more robust, especially at that impactful smaller scale. A focus on fair payment is equally a focus on Australia’s crucial small-to-medium sector.

Let’s enact valuable arts policies that are truly ambitious and truly fair.

Esther Anatolitis
About the Author
Esther Anatolitis is Deputy Chair of Contemporary Arts Precincts and Honorary Associate Professor at RMIT School of Art.